The sprint to the NHL playoffs begins Saturday, and with little time to prepare for the season, things could get quite interesting sooner rather than later. Predicting what may happen is a challenge, but as one not afraid to go out on a limb, here are a handful of predictions for the upcoming season:
Tuukka Rask will struggle as Boston’s No. 1: Unless Rask has figured out a way to stay up a bit longer, he is going to find himself getting beat upstairs –a lot. He was very successful when no one knew him as well as when he was backing up Tim Thomas and not seeing much action. However, with plenty of video on him, teams already know Rask can be beat under the bar. Will he be terrible? No, but he is no Tim Thomas.
Detroit will struggle to make the playoffs: The Red Wings have qualified for the postseason 22 years in a row, the longest current streak in pro sports. However, with the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom weakening the defense combined with the depth of the Western Conference, Detroit could find itself struggling to reach the postseason. One thing Detroit has going for it is the veteran presence of Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Todd Bertuzzi, Dan Cleary, Johan Franzen, Mikael Samuelson, and Nicklas Kronwall will have the Wings focused from day one. If Jimmy Howard can maintain his level of performance from the past two years and the team can stay healthy, the Wings will be back in the postseason.
Don’t miss the first games between Boston and Buffalo: There has always been bad blood between these two longtime rivals, but the acquisitions of Steve Ott and John Scott were an attempt to match Boston’s toughness. Add in the fact that Milan Lucic steamrolled Ryan Miller last year and no Buffalo player answered the bell to defend Miller, and you can bet the Sabres will be ready to rumble when the two teams meet on January 31 in Boston and especially on February 10 in Buffalo. By the way, Lucic will destroy Ott on the opening faceoff …
Vancouver is the only Canadian team that will make the playoffs:
Despite many predicting doom and gloom for the Canucks, they are still immensely talented and will be near the top of the Western Conference. Of the other Canadian teams, Ottawa probably has the best shot of reaching the postseason, but in a conference that includes Boston, Pittsburgh, Washington, and the New York Rangers (teams better than Ottawa), as well as Carolina, Buffalo, and Tampa Bay (all improved) and Florida and Philadelphia (teams that reached the postseason but probably are a bit weaker this season), making the playoffs will not be easy. Montreal? The Habs should be better but the playoffs are a longshot. Calgary is always close, but the Flames may not have enough to crack the top 8 in the West, and Edmonton is probably a year or two away. Toronto? Maybe if they get Roberto Luongo, but, then again, they are the Maple Leafs.
All that money and still no playoffs: Minnesota might have been the “big winners” in free agency, landing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, but it’s not going to help them make the postseason. The West is too deep and too strong, and the wild are still weak in many areas. The real irony is that Nashville will still make the playoffs without Suter! Would I be stunned if the two teams reversed roles? No, but I think Barry Trotz gets the Preds in the postseason while Parise and Suter do not do the same for the Wild.
Great rookies everywhere: This could be the season of the rookie, with as many of 10 to 12 players competing for the Calder. Of course, by midseason that list might be narrowed to a select 3 or 4. Either way, it should be an interesting race. A few to keep an eye on: Chris Kreider (NYR), Damien Brunner (Detroit), Dougie Hamilton (Boston), Jonathan Huberdeau (Florida), Mark Scheifele (Winnipeg), Justin Schultz and Nail Yakupov (Edmonton), Mikael Granlund (Minnesota), and Alex Galchenyuk (Montreal). I’ll go with Huberdeau as the winner, though any of these guys could step up and win it.
Sidney Crosby will stay healthy and battle Evgeni Malkin for the scoring title: One of the main beneficiaries from the lockout was Crosby, who got plenty of time to recover from his concussion issues. This is a make-or-break year for Crosby; there is no doubt regarding his talent, but there are plenty of questions about his ability to stay healthy. For the sake of the game, let’s hope he plays 48 games and looks like the great player he is. This brings us to the next prediction …
Crosby wins the MVP: The league’s best, and most marketable, player takes back his crown after a healthy season.
Tim Thomas stays quiet: After a tumultuous year last year, Thomas will not be heard from the whole season (thankfully it is shortened by a few months). Bruins’ fans who are saying “good riddance” now may be wishing he would make a return by April.
And the Cup winner is … Not an easy pick, as almost all of the top teams
have some question marks. How will Rick Nash affect team chemistry in New York? Can Tuukka Rask carry Boston to a Cup? Can Marc-Andre Fleury recover from last year’s playoff debacle? Is Alex Ovechkin back to himself? Do the Flyers have enough defense? Is Cory Schenider the answer in Vancouver? Can Jonathan Quick do it again – or can the Kings do more offensively? Are the Blues ready to take the next step, and can Jaroslav Halak have another amazing season? Can Chicago fix its goaltending problems? Does Detroit have a run left in its tank?
Both conferences are wide open, though I think the East is more top heavy with Boston, New York, and Pittsburgh. My call is Nash fits in perfectly in New York and leads the Rangers to the finals, where they will face the Blues, who will finally get back to the finals. There, Henrik Lundqvist adds another jewel to his crown, leading the Blueshirts to the Stanley Cup.
Steve Kendall has covered hockey at all levels for over two decades for various publications, including The Hockey Writers, the Boston Herald, New England Hockey Journal, and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. You can follow him on Twitter @stevekendallthw